Making the Most of the ArcGIS Platform in Higher Education

Aaron Addison, Director of Data Services & GIS at Washington University in St. Louis, sent a provocative message to Esri’s “highered-l” listserv recently.  His subject line was “What to teach from ArcGIS platform?” “I have been involved with GIS instruction for over 20 years,” Aaron wrote, “and never have I been less clear where a newcomer to the field of GIS should concentrate their skills.”

It’s a good question, especially in light of the emerging centrality of ArcGIS Online as both GIS software-as-a service and a geospatial content management system. Here Esri’s Education Team responds with a vision of how today’s ArcGIS platform can be used to support introductory, intermediate, and advanced GIS education at the college level.

The audience we have in mind is faculty members at higher education institutions who offer one or more classes about GIS and related geospatial technologies. Some are relatively large-enrolling introductory classes meant to raise awareness about GIS and related geospatial technologies. Others are smaller, intermediate- and advanced-level classes designed to prepare students for careers involving GIS use and application development. Rather than a linear uphill climb, we suggest that the progression from introductory to advanced GIS education be considered a circle that expands progressively to encompass more and more of the diverse software ecosystem that is contemporary GIS technology.

Several contributors to this vision statement have first-hand experience as college and university educators. We’re keenly aware that there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to curriculum design or supporting technology. The right curriculum and mix of technologies for a particular institution depends upon its mission; the disciplinary setting in which GIS education is to take place; faculty size, abilities, and interests; infrastructure and support available; and of course student characteristics, prior experience, and goals. With this in mind, our intent is to stimulate imagination and discussion, not to prescribe a single generic, decontextualized solution.

Though caveats abound, Aaron’s question still deserves a considered response. Our recommendation is the progressive exposure to the ArcGIS platform outlined below. The outline begins with a focus on ArcGIS Online, adds ArcGIS for Desktop at the intermediate level, and expands to encompass the broad GIS technology ecosystem – which includes but is not limited to the ArcGIS platform – at the advanced level.

Three things about this progression may differ from educators’ current conceptions and practices.

  1. We suggest that ArcGIS Online is an appropriate technology for introductory GIS education, especially since it incorporated basic spatial analysis functions earlier this year. ArcGIS Online enables novice students to find, create, analyze, and share web maps, but doesn’t require access to specialized GIS lab facilities.
  2. We suggest that ArcGIS for Desktop be used as an intermediate and advanced tool for students who aspire to GIS-related careers, generally not as a tool to introduce novice students to GIS.
  3. We suggest advanced-level tools and tasks that emphasize software and application development, which is an essential aspect of much professional GIS work today.

We offer these suggestions as respectful advice, not a sales pitch. In fact, a large majority of higher education institutions that teach GIS already have Esri education site licenses. Education site licensees are entitled to ArcGIS Online subscription accounts at no extra charge, as are licensees who maintain inexpensive ArcGIS for Desktop Lab Paks (up to 31 users) and Lab Kits (one or more users). Thus, thousands of higher education institutions worldwide already have access to most or all of the technologies we suggest.

For each level we suggest examples of the kinds of tasks students could be expected to perform with the specified technologies. We do not attempt an exhaustive inventory of the activities learners could do with each technology.  Furthermore, the levels don’t correspond to individual courses; one or more college courses could and probably should be implemented at each level.

1. Introductory level: Online

  • Explore basemaps and add layers to create map mashups.
  • Create web maps using primary data sources and appropriate mapping techniques, including symbology and data classification.
  • Use templates to create web maps and apps.
  • Perform basic analyses (e.g., aggregate points, create buffers, overlay layers) with pre-existing data.
  • Add data to a shared web map.
  • Use apps such as Community Analyst and Esri Maps for Office.

2: Intermediate level: Online and Desktop

  • Create map products using primary data sources (e.g., field data, image data, vector data, and attribute data) and appropriate mapping techniques, including symbology, data classification, and labels.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of earth geometry and the ability to manipulate coordinate systems and map projections.
  • Outline and implement workflows associated with site selection, location-allocation, viewsheds, optimal routing, and other intermediate-level analyses.
  • Design a simple geodatabase schema with appropriate field definitions, subtypes and domains.
  • Edit data and maintain topological relationships between layers.
  • Publish properly configured web maps to the cloud.

3. Advanced: Online, Desktop, Server, and Other Advanced Tools

  • Automate repetitive procedures using ModelBuilder.
  • Apply spatial interpolation to model data and spatial statistics to characterize patterns.
  • Create custom geoprocessing tools using Python scripting language and publish as web services.
  • Develop a basic mobile mapping application for iOS, Android, or Windows Phone using APIs and SDKs.
  • Use a scripting language such HTML5, JavaScript, or web application server languages (ASP, PHP, etc.) to create web mapping applications that consume ArcGIS services.
  •  Install, configure and develop custom web applications using ArcGIS for Server.
  • Prepare a requirements analysis for a geospatial database in response to user needs.
  • Implement a multi-user, versioned spatial database.
  • Create a customized interface for ArcGIS Server that enables users to access a backend database.

This statement is meant to advance the conversation in the GIS education community, not to be the last word on the subject.  To this end we plan to organize a series of webinars and presentations on this topic, and to discuss how the recommendations might play out in a variety of higher education settings during our many visits to higher education campuses. Meanwhile, we welcome your questions and comments, either in reply to this post, or to the related thread in our Esri GIS Higher Education Community group in Facebook.


Related resources

ArcGIS Platform

Quick Start Guide to ArcGIS Online

Performing Analysis in ArcGIS Online

ArcGIS Online Training Options

Esri Community Analyst

Esri Maps for Office

ArcGIS for Desktop

ArcGIS for Server

Esri Education Site License Overview

David DiBiase

About David DiBiase

David DiBiase leads the Education Team within Esri’s Industry Solutions group. The Team promotes and supports GIS use to enrich teaching and learning at all levels, in formal and informal settings, domestically and internationally. Before joining Esri, David founded and led the Penn State Online GIS Certificate and Masters (MGIS) degree programs.
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  1. Dawn Wright Dawn Wright says:

    Thank you David for this very important post, which I hope will be welcomed with relief and open arms by hundreds of educators. One additional consideration is that many departments and programs in the US now require their instructors to list learning outcomes within their syllabi. This is a wonderful opportunity for instructors to insert specifics, such as what kinds of students they are hoping to reach in the course (according to the adage that one size does not fit all as some students are seeking to GIS professionals while many others are not), what parts of the GIS&T Body of Knowledge they are focusing on, etc. I most definitely agree on the core concepts over technology principle. And what I have seen is many instructors who desperately want to start adopting online technology, but feel trapped by the perceived barrier of effort and learning cure in order to revamp their curricula accordingly. It would be great if Esri can indeed help show them the way.To that end, no doubt there will be great interest in datasets, canned labs, and workbooks to help implement your points for the 3 levels. I look forward to the webinar in October.

  2. rkornak says:

    It is refreshing to see a move away from complex desktop tools for new users!  It would also be helpful to see a post about best practices for educators administering ArcGIS Online for Organizations (how to manage one account with multiple instructors, classes and students, how to avoid one student accidentally consuming all of the credits, how to transition student accounts after a course ends so they can show off their work in portfolios, etc.). 

  3. says:

    How to create temprature map in ArcGis 9.3???

    Hamid Ali
    GIS Analyst